Panel tackles airline industry's thorny problems

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Hoping to fix some of the airline industry's thorniest problems, a federal panel is calling Wednesday for government aid to equip planes for a new air traffic control system and steps that could force parents to secure young children in separate seats when flying.

The panel is making 23 recommendations in all, according to a list distributed by the Transportation Department, and they include several items at the top of the airline industry's wish list such as how companies are taxed.

It urges a permanent extension of tax credits linked to research and development to help accelerate aircraft technology development, and asks that Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood lobby for legislation to extend a tax break for airport improvement bonds.

The panel was created a year ago and is holding its last meeting Wednesday. It will formally deliver its recommendations to LaHood and Federal Aviation Administrator Randy Babbitt later in the day.

One politically sensitive proposal calls for a re-examination of subsidies to help airlines continues commercial air service to smaller destinations. The Essential Air Service program has strong support among lawmakers from rural states. It subsidizes service to 154 communities and had a budget of $200 million in the 12 months ending Sept. 30.

The program was created after airline deregulation in 1978 to ensure that airlines wouldn't cancel less profitable service to small communities. Some rural communities would have no air service if not for the program. But critics contend the program hasn't kept pace with changes in the industry in recent decades. They say many of the communities receiving subsidized service have other transportation alternatives, including access to airports within a reasonable driving distance that are served by low-cost air carriers.

Several recommendations relate to FAA's NextGen program to replace the current air traffic control system, which is based on World War II-era radar, with a new system using satellite-based technology. The agency already has several pieces of the new system in place, but in order for it work effectively airlines and other aircraft owners must install expensive cockpit equipment to continually broadcast a plane's position and receive the positions of other planes.

The panel wants government aid to help owners to install the equipment within the next four years. The recommendation suggests a menu of forms the support can take, including loans and grants. Planes with the equipment on board would get preference for the best takeoff and landing slots.

FAA has been working on a new air traffic control system for more than a decade. It anticipates spending $15 billion to $22 billion on the NextGen program before it's completed some time after 2020. FAA's plans also call for airlines to shell out an additional $14 billion to $20 billion to install equipment in their planes.

Another recommendation could lead to a requirement that young children be secured in child seats when flying, forcing parents to buy airline tickets for children under two years old instead of holding the children on laps during flight.

The panel is urging FAA to update its economic and safety data on families traveling with small children, including incidents and accidents involving injuries and deaths. It says LaHood should take action based on the findings.

Safety advocates say small children run a greater risk of being injured or killed in a crash or by air turbulence if they are held in parents' laps than if they are secured in child seats, which on most airlines would require the purchase of an extra ticket. The National Transportation Safety Board recently held a forum on the issue.

FAA has resisted requiring the use of child seats or other means to secure children in their own seats. The agency says its research shows families will choose to drive instead of fly because of the expense of buying extra tickets. Agency officials say that increases the danger to children since a fatal accident is more likely to happen on the road than in the air. But some of the agency's research dates back more than a decade and may not account for the availability of low-cost air carriers.

"Many parents don't think about it or even know that they should think about it," Nicole Piasecki, a Boeing executive on the committee, said in a statement.

Another recommendation urges greater transparency by airlines in informing passengers when buying tickets that one or more legs of the flight will be operated by another airline. These are often smaller, regional carriers. About half the U.S. domestic airline flights are operated by regional carriers, often names similar to their mainline airline partner.

The committee's 19 members represented airlines, airports, labor, manufacturers, environment, finance, academia, consumer interests and non-airline aircraft owners and operators.



The Department of Transportation